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Health officials in Montana promote kids' COVID vacinations because the state isn't

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Nationwide, some 28 million kids between the ages of 5 to 11 are now eligible to be immunized against COVID-19. The federal government estimates that about a million have so far. And while some states are aggressively promoting new shots for kids, Montana is not. Here's Aaron Bolton of Montana Public Radio in Columbia Falls.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Days before the Pfizer COVID vaccine was approved for kids 5 to 11 years old, Montana's Republican Governor Greg Gianforte said his administration was evaluating whether to promote the new lower dose shot for kids.

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GREG GIANFORTE: We will have to see what guidance we get from the companies, the approval. And we'll make decisions based on that.

BOLTON: To few people's surprise, Montana isn't promoting the chance for younger children just like it didn't when vaccinations were OK'd for 12- to 18-year-olds. Jim Murphy says that's despite the state health department recommending a vaccination campaign for children.

JIM MURPHY: The work that our team got to us, that those scripts were being revised. And we wouldn't be directly promoting team vaccination for COVID from the state level.

BOLTON: Murphy was the health department's top epidemiologist at the time. He retired soon after he says the scripts were rejected. The governor's office disputes Murphy's version of events, saying he wasn't involved in creating vaccine promotional materials for kids and never sent them any. But another former state health department staffer that worked on vaccine campaigns, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution at work, corroborates Murphy's version of events. Governor Gianforte declined to be interviewed for this story. His office points out that the state is running ads like this one on radio, TV and online.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: The COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to protect yourself, your loved ones and your community. Sign up today to get your free COVID-19 vaccine. Visit covidvaccine.mt.gov.

BOLTON: But Sheana Bull, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health who studies vaccine campaigns, says ads work better when they're aimed at a specific audience.

SHEANA BULL: Sometimes state-level campaigns may miss the mark because they're trying to reach too many people that are too diverse.

BOLTON: Bull points to campaigns like Utah's as good examples. Here's an ad that state is running.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: You do so many things to protect your child. Now you can protect them from the pandemic.

BOLTON: Dr. John Cole, president of the Montana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, thinks the state could be doing a better job promoting the newly approved vaccines for kids.

JOHN COLE: The key for the general public is we need a consistent message. And when we're hearing silence or not much of a message from the state level, I think that breeds a sense of nervousness or insecurity about the vaccine.

BOLTON: In the absence of a state campaign for children, some local health departments, medical and public health associations are launching their own, aimed at parents. And some kids are coming in. Seven-year-old Marshall Buszman got his in Missoula.

MARSHALL BUSZMAN: It didn't hurt that much. And it only took, like, three seconds.

BOLTON: Montana's vaccination rate continues to lag behind that for the U.S. as a whole for both adults and kids aged 12 through 17. Federal officials are in the process of updating their estimates for how many 5- to 11-year-olds have been vaccinated.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Columbia Falls, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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